Scoutmaster David Ziska and his wife Julie, the troop committee chairman of Troop 457, built one of the most successful Boy Scout programs in the country from their Pinecrest neighborhood.
The troop has produced 289 Eagle Scouts since Ziska got involved locally with the Boy Scouts in 1985.
For the first 20 or so years, Troop 457 cranked out an average 11 Eagle Scouts per year — a number practically unheard of in scouting. Eagle Scout is the highest rank. To earn the title one must, among other achievements, execute an extensive community service project. One Troop 457 scout, for instance, undertook a project to paint 300 of the tombstones in the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery in Coconut Grove, a historic landmark for Bahamian immigrants.
“In one year, a number of years back, we had 28 Eagle Scouts in one year,” Julie Ziska said. “That was a national record that no troop ever had.”
Dave Ziska died March 8, at 83 after battling leukemia. He was a 35-year member of the Gold Diggers, a performing arts group that supports the Leukemia Society. One year, his wife recalls, Ziska, a retired IBM South Florida branch manager, donned a pink tutu to perform as a swan in a Gold Diggers production of Swan Lake. “He was a great sport.”
Indeed, she would hear from admirers for years about Ziska’s good-natured stage turn.
But one would have a hard time topping his achievements with the Boy Scouts.
“How many lives he touched. How many young boys that grew up with him and the values and principles he taught them. He helped them grow into manhood and he will live on in each and every one of them,” said Sandra Wehking, a Palmetto Bay mother of two Eagle Scouts — Jonathan, 32, a University of Central Florida professor, and Jason, 30, a financial analyst.
“Our boys became very successful and I think their Eagle Scout projects and leadership skills they learned helped them achieve the success they have today,” Wehking said.
Ziska, born Sept. 7, 1931 in Belleville, Illinois, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a Washington University business graduate, first became a Scoutmaster when he was living in Stamford, Connecticut, with his four daughters from his first marriage.
“He loved doing stuff outdoors, so he volunteered to be a Scoutmaster,” said son Brian Thelen. He served five years there as a scout leader.
When Brian, 39, and his twin brother Kenneth were cubs at Pinecrest Elementary in 1983, Dave and Julie, his wife of 36 years, got involved with Scouting locally. Ten years later, their sons made Eagle Scout together.
“He was always a generous person, very calm and patient, very loving,” said Thelen.
His son remembers one particular trip in which the family was traveling north on U.S. Highway 27 for a camping trip. A drunk driver careened out of control, crossed the median, and took aim at the Ziskas’ car. Ziska maneuvered to avert disaster. The other driver took out the entire trailer behind their vehicle.
“All our gear is now scattered all over the highway. We found some church in a podunk town that let us stay for the night. This turned from one of the worst experiences to one of our most memorable camp-outs,” Thelen said.
“What a privilege,” Julie Ziska said of serving alongside her husband with Troop 457. “The impact, to see what a true life difference it makes in the boys forever. Dave had an incredible ability to lead by example and motivate. He believed strongly in the Scout law, which basically are great values and principles to live by, so he was able to instill that.”
Along the way, Ziska was involved with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Jobs and Education Partnership, United Way, Junior Achievement, Metro Miami Action Plan and a President of Council for Christ the King Lutheran Church.
In addition to his wife and sons, Ziska is survived by daughters Nancy Pomerance, Judy Voss, Cyndi Duncan and Jayne Carroll; his brother Ronald, 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A viewing will be held from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 28 at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest. Services will be held at 3 p.m. March 29 at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 11295 SW 57th Ave., Pinecrest.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.